Looking East: Chinese Leadership Transition Part 2

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Here’s a List of Chinese Names You Might Want to Remember

PART II – Model Cadres


This piece continues ( from Part I) an overview of the potential new leaders of China with the biographical profiles of five other likely candidates to the Chinese Communist Party’s highest sanctum of power – the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). As you will see, the most likely three candidates among the five are all considered to be something of a “model cadre” in their respective lines of work (Zhang Dejiang in running provinces and crisis management, Liu Yunshan in the propaganda system, and Zhang Gaoli in managing economic development in key sites for economic experimentation).  Their more likely candidacy over the more charismatic figure of Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang (and the now disgraced Bo Xilai) highlight the party’s obsession with stability and group discipline.


The promotion of Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli into the PBSC, combined with Li Keqiang’s expected ascension to Premier and Wang Qishan’s likely ascension to a high political position on the PBSC not associated with his forte of financial sector governance and reform, would be revealing of the Party leadership’s attitude towards further reforms.  Li Keqiang’s expected takeover of economic policy making in China as the Premier of the State Council will make the government’s top priority forming much needed social safety nets and promoting more equitable growth over the next 5-10 years.  Li’s position will be cemented by Wang Qishan’s political promotion, and simultaneous removal from day-to-day running of the country’s financial and trade sectors on the State Council, leaving the portfolio for a lesser political figure who is less likely to challenge Li’s leadership position.  With Zhang Gaoli’s potential promotion into the State Council as its first vice premier overseeing overall economic development and restructuring (see below), Li’s government will proceed with the “comprehensive reforms” of the Chinese economy as envisioned by the 12th Five Year Plan and tested in “pilot cities” like Zhang Gaoli’s Tianjin (see below).   This lineup of China’s economic leadership would be an indication that, while the Party is serious about furthering the reform process, reforms will largely proceed under the framework already setup by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao with no drastic changes occurring in the near future (first 3-5 years).


On the Party/political front, given their backgrounds, propaganda director Liu Yunshan and Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang will likely join organizational czar Li Yuanchao in assisting General Secretary Xi Jinping in running the Party’s day-to-day operations, propaganda machine, and discipline inspection.  Speculations about Zhang’s possible position of appointment inside the party apparatus come from his extensive experience in governing key provinces (see below).  This staffing of the country’s new political leadership with experienced apparatchiks could potentially help Xi Jinping streamline party governance and initiate a much needed cleanup.  At the same time, as both Li Yuanchao and Liu Yunshan are considered close affiliates of current General Secretary Hu Jintao, the lineup also reflects a balance of power between key party factions.


For the latest speculation on candidates’ chances, check out Reuter’s “Exclusive: China power brokers agree on preferred leadership – sources

The article’s analysis matched predictions made by Duowei News (who also have “sources” in high up places) a few months in advance.



Zhang Dejiang (张德江): The Mess Cleaner

Born: 1946

Current position: Vice Premier (3 out of 4) and concurrently caretaker party chief of post-Bo Xilai Chongqing

Background: party chiefs of Jilin, Zhejiang, and Guangdong

Likelihood of ascent: said to be likely

Random fact: educated abroad in Pyongyang, North Korea


With four out of seven slots filled, the three remaining seats of the PBSC will most likely to be filled by three of the following five people: Zhang Dejiang, Zhang Gaoli, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, and Wang Yang.  Among these people, the most likely person to gain a seat is Zhang Dejiang.  The leadership’s trust in Zhang was revealed when he was sent to clean up Chongqing after Bo Xilai’s epic but potentially destabilizing downfall.   Before Chongqing, Zhang served as the Vice Premier overseeing industry, infrastructure, and emergency response in China’s central government.  This made him a crisis manager who made frequent appearances at disaster scenes (the Wenzhou high speed rail disaster, and numerous coal mine collapses).   Zhang is a good example of an uncontroversial party cadre with extensive experience running important provinces (agricultural Jilin, rich and entrepreneurial Zhejing, and dynamic Guangdong) and connections, but not tight factional affiliations, to the top (he is said to enjoy the backing of former President Jiang Zemin).



Liu Yunshan (刘云山): The Propagandist

Born: 1947

Current position: Director of CC Department of Propaganda

Background: Communist Youth League (Hu Jintao), propaganda system

Likelihood of ascent: said to be likely


Liu Yunshan is the current director of the CCP Central Committee’s Propaganda Department.  He has now served two terms in the Politburo as Director of the Central Propaganda Department and thus “deserves” a natural promotion into the standing committee.  He would be a natural successor to Li Changchun, the current PBSC member in charge of propaganda work, except that, with the rumored reduction of PBSC seats from 9 to 7, the propaganda chair might be eliminated. The propaganda chair and the security apparatus chair are the least traditional and institutionalized positions on the PBSC.  However, Liu’s experience as a dutiful central party apparatchik, first in the Communist Youth League (under Hu Jintao) and then in the propaganda system, will still give him an edge up.



Zhang Gaoli (张高丽): The Low-key Model Cadre

Born: 1946

Current position: CCP Secretary of Tianjin

Background: career started in the oil industry, extensive experience in Guangdong’s economic sector (including party chief of vanguard city of Shenzhen), Shandong party chief

Likelihood of ascent: said to be likely


Zhang Gaoli is another top candidate with extensive background in local government (particularly in local economic policy making) and little or no political controversiality.  Under his tenure, Tianjin’s Binhai New District, one of the few “National Pilot Zone for Overall Reform” set up across the country in the mid to late 2000s as upgrades of Special Economic Zones, has been frequently visited by government and party delegations, including several visits by President Hu Jintao himself.  These visits have been interpreted as affirmation for Zhang’s economic governing record and possibly a sign for further promotions.  Zhang is also relatively old and can serve only one term on the PBSC, which, along with his economic policy making record, make him a good candidate for the position of first vice premier since the position is likely to be vacated for the upcoming premier in 2017.


Stay tuned for Part III of this series for the profiles of the rest of the candidates – the unlikely ones.


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